Should use of chemical weapons in Syria be a 'game changer?'

Last month President Obama called chemical weapons use by Syria a 'game changer,' but why do US interests change if chemical weapons are used?

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
A member of the Free Syrian Army holds his weapon as he sits on a sofa in the middle of a street in Deir al-Zor, April 2. The United States believes with varying degrees of confidence that Syria's regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale, the White House said on Thursday. But it added that President Barack Obama needed "credible and corroborated" facts before acting on that assessment.

The Obama administration said in a letter to senators today that it has seen evidence that the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have used chemical weapons against its opponents "on a small scale."

The letter drew howls from predictable quarters that the US must now do more to arm rebels or perhaps even go directly to war with Syria; cautions from Obama administration officials like Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that evidence isn't firm enough yet to be the "game changer" President Barack Obama had promised in March; and a reiteration from the administration itself that proven use of chemical weapons by Assad would draw a sharp response from the US.

"The President has made it clear," Miguel E. Rodriquez, Obama's director of legislative affairs wrote to Sens. John McCain and Carl Levin today, "that the use of chemical weapons – or the transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist groups – is a red line for the United States of America."

But why should the US commit itself to war with Syria on the basis of whether it used chemical weapons?  There's an unspoken assumption that chemical weapons are a special horror that requires special responses, but the underpinnings for this are rarely explored.

The catalog of likely war crimes by the Assad regime has steadily expanded since anti-government protests first broke out in early 2011. Thousands have been killed by cluster bombs, mortars, and scud missiles that have rained down on Syrian cities, with no discrimination between rebel fighters and civilians. Rebels, too, have been implicated in war crimes: executing prisoners, carrying out indiscriminate bombings in civilian areas, and participating in sectarian massacres.

At least 70,000 Syrians have died in the conflict and 1.4 million have fled the country, mostly to neighboring Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, where they're straining the budgets of the local governments and the United Nations agencies tasked with providing humanitarian assistance. Aside from death tolls and home losses, millions of Syrians are being plunged into poverty. 

So, the human need is great, regional strategic fears are mounting, and from the outside, the whole thing looks like a bloody stalemate. But the US has been reluctant to couple its insistence that Mr. Assad "must go" with the sort of military assistance that could prove decisive.

That's because Obama and many of his advisers are worried about the substantial presence amid the rebel fighters of the same brand of jihadis the US spent a fortune fighting in neighboring Iraq and the prospects for a major sectarian bloodletting in the country in the wake of a defeat for Assad. The US has also been reluctant to act without UN Security Council backing, something Russia has steadfastly opposed, at least until now.

But if all of these things have stayed Obama's hand, why would the "small" use of a chemical weapon, presumably some of the sarin nerve gas that has long been in the Syrian government's arsenal, change his strategic calculation?

Yes, there's a UN convention against chemical weapons (as there are against a great many things), but the world is filled with horrible crimes, and it seems to me the best way to measure them is by the number of their victims rather than the means of assault.

For instance, Saddam Hussein's famous chemical assault on the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988 claimed about 5,000 lives. But in the overall context of the punitive Anfal Campaign that he pursued in the late 1980s against Iraq's Kurdish population, the use of chemical weapons was small potatoes. Human Rights Watch estimated a minimum of 50,000 Kurds were killed during one six-month period in 1988 and perhaps as many as 100,000, almost all of them non-combatants.

Yet internationally, Halabja is spoken of again and again as evidence of Hussein's particular evil; the vastly greater number of people killed with conventional weapons is rarely mentioned at all. 

But both Obama's people and his more hawkish critics in congress appear to be in agreement that greater US action will be mandated by the use of chemical weapons in Syria. So what's the quality of evidence?

So far, evidence is sketchy and it appears to come entirely via Syrian opposition sources, who have a clear incentive to exaggerate or fabricate Syrian government crimes as they pursue international support for their cause. The administration's letter said, rather awkwardly, that the US intelligence community "does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale."

Varying degrees of confidence? Does that mean that one intelligence agency says "highly unlikely, but maybe" and in the analysis of another the situation is "highly likely, but not 100 percent for certain?" Given the poor intelligence analysis and the misuse of raw intelligence in the rush to war with Iraq in 2003, caution is clearly required.

The letter also says the "chain of custody" on "physiological samples" provided by opposition groups to the US claiming they prove chemical weapons use is unclear – by which the administration means it can't guarantee precisely when the samples, which Wired indicates were blood samples containing evidence of sarin gas exposure, were drawn, where they were drawn, or under what circumstances.

In other words, they could have been tampered with, or the evidence of sarin in them could have come from some other cause (rebel fighters handling captured chemical weapons?). Or maybe rebels used sarin they captured from Assad. Or, well, something else.

The good news for those worried about a rush to war is that Obama's people went to enormous pains today to insist that much harder evidence will be needed before the matter is considered settled. It was hard to read their comments as anything but a rebuke about the way things were done ahead of the Iraq war.

Obama's legislative affairs director Mr. Rodriquez wrote to Sens. McCain and Levin today: "Intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient - only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making, and strengthen our leadership of the international community."

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